The Battle Over the Body and Blood of Christ: The Blood Becomes Wine

The Battle Over the Body and Blood of Christ: The Blood Becomes Wine March 6, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a weekly Lenten series on the body and blood of Christ by Church History Professor Kelly Pigott.

shutterstock_254044300-2Cecil B. Demille portrayed Moses receiving the law in a very dramatic way, with wind and fire and Charleton Heston overacting as Moses. When I imagine Moses receiving the law, I see it as a far more subdued affair, with Moses perched on a rock scribbling on papyrus or sheep’s skin. I’ve often wondered how much arguing actually went on between the two because in many passages Moses clearly felt the freedom to quarrel with God, which was fortunate for the Israelites who were on the verge of being completely destroyed on several occasions.

For example, a discussion of which foods were considered clean and unclean may have gone something like this:

God: “Anything that chews the cud, you may not eat.”

Moses: “Forgive me LORD, but I love double cheese animal-that-chews-the-cud burgers.”

God: “You may not eat double cheese animal-that-chews-the-cud burgers anymore. I declare it non-kosher.”

Moses: “But Lord, if we can’t eat the animal-that-chews-the-cud, that would also eliminate pot animal-that-chews-the-cud roasts. If women weren’t allowed to put a roast in the oven before church so that the family could come home and eat, this would be a hardship and they might have to work on the Sabbath.”

God: “Ok, I relent. You may eat the animal-that-chews-the-cud, but do not put the cheese on it.”

Moses: “What’s wrong with a little cheese? I foresee a day when people wear cheese on their heads at sporting events.”

God: “You may wear cheese on your head, but don’t put it on the animal-that-chews-the-cud, because the milk of the mother is in the cheese.”

Moses: “Oh, all right, no cheese animal-that-chews-the-cud burgers. At least I can still have bacon animal-that-chews-the-cud burgers.”

God: “We’ll talk about that, later. I think I need to rest, now.”

Most Christians completely ignore the list of unclean foods. We feel justified in this because in Acts 15 the Apostles decided not to burden Gentiles with this aspect of the law, with two exceptions. We are not to eat meats sacrificed to idols—not a problem. AND, we are not to eat meat with the blood in it. Remember, this was before the invention of the Food Network, and so the Apostles did not know that if you cook a steak well-done it tends to dry it out. Despite the fact that this command had the full support of the Apostles backing it, many Christians place it under the “stupid cultural laws I can ignore” category. And yet, isn’t it interesting that out of all the commands mentioned in the Old Testament, this was one of a rare few chosen for the Gentiles to obey? Why?

For this, we have to delve into the legal sections in the Torah that we usually skip over because it’s boring. Here we find descriptions of the various sacrifices with names like “whole burnt offering” and “purification offering” and “reparation offering.” When an animal was slaughtered for these offerings, strict orders were given to allow the blood to be poured on the ground. Sometimes the blood was sprinkled on various items to ritually purify them, but for the most part, the blood of the animal was to return to the earth from which it came. The reason being that the blood literally represented the life of the animal. And this life was the sole property of YHWH. He created it, and He demanded it back with warnings and actions which sent the clear message: “Don’t mess with the blood.” To insure that no blood was consumed, YHWH even demanded that the animals be slaughtered a specific way and cooked well-done (note to kosher nerds, I know the latter is hyperbolic).

Skip over to the New Testament. Now that this long history has been established under the Old Covenant that the blood equals life, Jesus holds up the cup of wine before his disciples the night before he is to be sacrificed and says to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24, NRSV). He then has them drink from it. Now remember, up until this moment humanity was not allowed to drink the blood. It belonged to YHWH. When Noah exited the ark, God proclaimed it off limits; and for those who dared to disobey, YHWH threatened to set “his face against that person” (Lev. 17:10). I’m not sure what that means, but I don’t want to find out.

But now, Jesus has made it possible for us to drink blood because it is no longer blood, but wine. In other words, perhaps the issue is NOT that the wine has been changed into blood, but that the blood has been changed into wine, making it permissible to drink and accessible to everyone, both Jew and Gentile, you and me, saint and sinner. And in consuming it, we receive life.

Whether or not you buy this argument, there is a definite connection between the sacrificial language found in the temple worship in Judaism and the language that will surround the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. The rich and complex theology that comes out of the Lord’s Supper has at its core the idea that Jesus offered himself up for humanity in order that they might experience life. One would think that this powerful and beautiful idea would bring us together. But tragically, the vision of grace presented at the very first communion table quickly turned into a punitive battleground.

For starters, despite the very inclusive attitude of Jesus to allow even the guy who was about to betray him at the table, leaders in the Jesus movement started to utilize the table to exclude people who stepped out of line theologically or morally. For example, a second-century Christian by the name of Justin Martyr wrote, “And this food is called the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.”

And so, as Christians gathered at the table in the days of Justin Martyr, those who didn’t meet these requirements were invited to leave the room. A small minority, at first, but it didn’t take long before the list of disinvitees turned into a massive majority.

Photo credit: wideonet/Shutterstock.com

Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors at kellypigott.com. Follow him on twitter @kellypigott


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2 responses to “The Battle Over the Body and Blood of Christ: The Blood Becomes Wine”

  1. I am not sure if your tie to judas is very strong. after all Judas himself did not partake of the blood (not wine) seeing as he left to betray Jesus before this occurred. Judas was invited to the table to be sure, but it was his sin that kept him from the feast. I disagree on the terms of exclusion. it was not done so as a matter of active exclsusion on the part of the church but reactive exclusion based on the one who partakes of the Eucharist in an unworthy manner was comitting a sin (see 1 Corinthians 11:27). In many ways the one who partakes of the Euchararist unworthily recommits the sin of Judas by betraying the son of man with a kiss, or rather, to feign an act of intimacy with the Lord while denying His sovereignty or the church He established. this would have well been on the minds of 1st century Christians (it certainly seems to be on Paul’s mind) as it was on the mind of Justin Martyr.

  2. John, I’m not sure if you realized, but only one Gospel records Judas leaving the upper room, and that is John’s in which the last meal is not referred to in Eucharistic terms. The Synoptics don’t mention anyone leaving early or being excluded. Your understanding of unworthiness is also different. In the beginning of 1 Corinthians 11, Paul complains about people being inhospitable and eating and drinking more than their share.